The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Crucified Dreams edited by Joe R. Lansdale

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

Strictly speaking, horror is one of the most widely-disputed genres. What truly makes a book scary? What will send chills down the reader’s spine? One author’s guts-and-gore fest won’t appeal to another’s psychological horror cravings. And let’s not forget about the audience that demands zombies and tales of the undead without comedic effect. In a word, umbrella-term horror simply won’t suffice.

Enter Crucified Dreams, an alleged collection of urban horror edited by writer and anthologist Joe R. Lansdale. Comprised of reprinted short stories by legends (such as Stephen King) and relative new-comers alike, Lansdale has attempted to define horror as he sees fit.

Crucified Dreams ranges from the visceral, to the psychological--from the tangible, to the supernatural. For example, Harlan Ellison’s stunning “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” (which opens the anthology) provides both psychological and graphic visual representation of what is the popularly perceived horror genre (murder, dark beings, etc.). Norman Partridge’s strange western-esque “The Mohave Two-Step” isn’t so much horror as it is highly strange and borderline surrealist. And the various crime stories sprinkled liberally through the volume don’t seek so much to scare the audience, as they do provide a gritty sort of context that filters through the page and into the real world.

Standout stories include the aforementioned Ellison tale; “The Evening The Morning and the Night” by the late Octavia Butler; and “The Quickening” by Michael Bishop.

And what makes each of these stories special? Quite simply, the single element that makes anthologies like this one so tricky to pinpoint in the first place: each author’s own personal brands of horror. While Ellison prefers to stick with the most basic interpretation of “urban horror”, Butler expands her horizons into something more akin to a zombie-style epidemic (which, admittedly, would be most dangerous in a city setting) and Bishop’s hapless main character falls into a Tower-of-Babel-like situation with nothing but his wits to guide him.

Interestingly enough, although each of these stories has it’s own unique flavor and style, they’re all connected by the elements which make up the foundation of a horror story: isolation, deprivation, panic, and pain.

Operating on a wide spectrum of definition, Crucified Dreams allows authors to explore their own personal writing style, while adhering loosely to the genre at hand. Readers need to keep in mind that this “loose” adherence is what defines the anthology; that arguably, no two stories are in the same specific genre or sub-genre. At the same time, this very element is what makes Crucified Dreams so interesting: it’s like an self-sufficient eco-system of horror, where new “breeds” create themselves on every page.

Ultimately, Crucified Dreams isn’t necessarily a volume of “urban horror”; its stories aren’t especially scary, as much as they are thought-provoking and engaging. And honestly, the truly striking stories in this anthology are a bit scarce. Nevertheless, Crucified Dreams is an enjoyable foray into the seedy underbelly of city life, and does provide some thoughtful material for the reader who’s willing to pick and choose.


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